September 29, 2000

Eye Center focuses vision on world

Featured Image

Dr. Don Kaplan, left, an ophthalmologist from Andover, N.H., Lions Club, analyzes photo screening pictures with Dr. Sean Donahue and Tammy Johnson, MPH, during a training session. The session is part of the vision screening outreach program.(photo by Dana Johnson)

Eye Center focuses vision on world

Two Vanderbilt University Medical Center professionals with their eyes on preventing blindness have been chosen to lead an international team to Beijing for World Sight Day.

Dr. Sean Donahue, assistant professor of ophthalmology and Tammy Johnson, director of the Tennessee Lions Outreach Eye Center, will head to China Oct. 7 to train 30 ophthalmologists from Germany, the Dominican Republic, France, Australia and other countries for the third-annual international event and the first time the program will occur in China.

Their goal: to screen 2,000 children between six months and four years old for amblyopia, weakness in one eye that is the leading cause of blindness in children. But the condition is easily treated if the right system is in place, which leads to another goal for the team.

“We’re not just there to do a screening. We’re out to prove scientifically that an outreach program works,” Johnson says.

The Vanderbilt duo was hand-picked by Lions International to forge the way in China because of their successful state-wide vision screening program using hand-held “Photoscreener” cameras.

“We’re trying to demonstrate to the world some of the preventive technologies to prevent sight loss,” says Peter Lynch, manager of Lions Club International Grant Programs Department, based near Chicago. “The Tennessee Lions Eye Center’s photo screening outreach program is the model program that we request all other Lions to build upon. It’s head and shoulders above anyone else we know, and we’re involved in programs in more than 100 countries around the world.”

Since the program began three years ago, 31,000 young Tennesseans have had their vision screened by the Outreach Eye Center, Johnson says. The outcomes from the screenings, which Lynch calls “quite an achievement,” is the accurate identification of about five percent of the children to ophthalmologists.

Amblyopia occurs in about five percent of the population, hence the Vanderbilt’s program is right on target, Lynch says. Other screening programs over refer children, making them less efficient.

The Vanderbilt and Tennessee Lions’ efforts were reported in the September issue of Ophthalmology.

Donahue and Johnson’s local network takes the success one step further. They follow up with parents to ensure the child has received care, resulting in 75 percent of the kids actually getting help. When caught early, the treatment to correct the problem is relatively easy and greatly increases the prevention of blindness.

Now, the Lions want to replicate Vanderbilt’s success in a third-world environment, where, Lynch says, the rate of childhood blindness is higher due to lower levels of neonatal care, increased exposure to measles and common vitamin A deficiencies.

“We want to let governments and corporations know that childhood blindness is a solvable problem,” Lynch says. “It’s just a matter of focusing attention on it. We’re anticipating laying groundwork between Lions International, the Tennessee Eye Center and the Chinese government. We will continue screening in Beijing and will look to Sean and Tammy for help.”Amblyopia can be detected as early as six months of age. But, Johnson says, because the child’s vision is developing the child is not aware of a problem. “If you’re a child you don’t know to complain because it’s what you had all your life,” she says. “And if you’re an adult, you don’t know what the child is seeing.”

The Beijing project, Johnson and Donahue say, will extend their Tennessee research to fortify the plan in place here and build upon it in other parts of the world.

“We don’t know how well it will work in the third world,” Donahue says. “A screening program is only as good as its weakest link. We want to make sure all the links are tight.”

Currently, the biggest questionable link is the absence of screening technology. The China trip will be a chance to demonstrate that using the photo screener, which looks like an overgrown Polaroid camera, is an economical and efficient screening method that’s relatively low-tech and very user friendly, Donahue says.

“For Vanderbilt this is an opportunity to continue to develop our position as the leader in pre-school vision screening with technology that’s available,” Donahue says. “But for the children of China, it’s a great opportunity to get access to care and a chance to identify problems that normally wouldn’t be treated until too late,” Donahue says. n